It may seem like an odd analogy, but listening to Kim Richey's latest album--her first in over five years--reminded me of those wonderful Jacques Cousteau specials from the 1970s.
Richey shares a curiosity and intrepid spirit with the late undersea explorer, a willingness to go over the side and plunge into the mysteries below. She'll get up close and observe the details, but never claim to understand everything that she's seeing. Of course, as a singer-songwriter rather than a marine biologist, Richey's fathoms have to do with the heart and all its mixed-up wanderings.
A few species of lovers and friends we encounter: the changeling of "Chinese Boxes" who is like "magic spells and misdirection, smoke and mirrors, plastic flowers"; the enchanted couple in "Jack And Jill," one who wears her "dress like a Saturday," the other who holds her hand "like a mystery"; the sweet, tongue-tied companions of "Drift"; and on "The Absence Of Your Company" and "Not A Love Like This," the indecisive, non-committal types who keep us forever circling in emotional holding patterns.
Beyond the graceful melodies and haiku-like couplets in the lyrics, what makes these songs so resonant is Richey's lack of judgment as a narrator. She never paints herself as a victim or blames another person for their faults. She simply shines her flashlight into the recesses of an emotional situation the best she can, then sings about what she sees and feels. There's a quiet power in that.
Richey's first mate, if you will, on Chinese Boxes is producer Giles Martin. Son of George Martin, Giles produced Love, the reimagined Beatles mash-up album of last year. While there are certainly Fab-ish touches here and there (Mellotron flutes, whistling, Leslie guitars), what Martin brings to the table is a tremendous clarity in recording and mixing.
This is great news for fans of Richey's dusky alto voice, which has never sounded more intimate and full of warmth. Her vocal performances on ballads like "Pretty Picture" and "Something To Say" are simply some of the best she's ever done.
A welcome return, and a deep, satisfying voyage.
• Bill DeMain